The Essence of Tribal Art: An Asmat Shield

In the Asmat highlands of Indonesian New Guinea (Irian Jaya), shields are used not only as defensive weapons but also in funeral ceremonies. The example below, from the collection of the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta, is typical of such shields.

Made of mangrove wood, the human motifs on the surface represent protective ancestors: mother, father and grandfather. The shield can also act as a container for ancestral spirits returning to the earth. The human figure projecting from the top of the shield serves as a place of residence of the bearer’s own soul. The red and white contrast of the shield gives it a striking appearance. The white comes from grounded mussel shells while red can be obtained from various sources: baked red clay, the juice of wild berries or the bark of the wase tree. The black portions of the shield comes from crushed charcoal.

Leave a Reply